Playwright mines rich narrative

April 22, 2013
A scene from Tall Man.

Last year, multi-award-winning playwright Angela Betzien undertook a three week residency in the Queensland town of Mt Morgan where she researched and developed a play exploring the impact of mining. Tall Man, a 50-minute two-hander, received standing ovations when it toured for one night only in three mining towns in Central Queensland.

“The play made us cringe and laugh,” said one Mt Morgan resident. “It challenged a room to acknowledge its story.”

Green left Weekly's Brianna Pike talked to Betzien about the play.

What inspired you to write Tall Man?

Wayne, the central character in Tall Man is actually based loosely on
a real person. Several years ago a close friend told me about a family friend who was making a living as a criminal. I’m not entirely sure of the nature of his crimes, but I believe he was breaking and entering and quite possibly committing armed robbery.

According to legend, he and his gang were incredibly generous with family and friends, doleing out cash and giving away expensive gifts. It must have been an exhilarating life. I imagine he would have felt like a king, like he was really living on the edge, a character in a movie.

Then it all shattered. He had a car accident after a high-speed police chase that left him brain injured. He lost everything and everyone. I wanted to tell a story based on this real man, but to tell the story in the context of class and the history of this country, which in many ways is a big crime story of stolen resources and stolen land.

What are your influences as a playwright?

I’m unashamedly influenced by film and television. I think there’s so much that playwrights can learn about character, structure and tension from brilliant TV thrillers like Breaking Bad and even more generic crime drama like CSI.

There’s a reason why these kinds of dramas are so popular with audiences. As theatre makers we need to tap into genre writing and subvert it for our own purposes. I’d like to think I did that with The Dark Room, produced at Belvoir in 2011.

As one reviewer said: “Some psychological thrillers are happy to creep you out and let you go. By contrast, Betzien's (play) haunts you afterwards because it looks beyond itself and out to injustices that must be acknowledged even if they can't be rectified.”

With The Dark Room I wanted to make a play that was truly scary, one that employed some of the techniques of the thriller/horror genre, but at its core said something vital about this country and how we treat our children.

What can audiences expect from Tall Man?

Audiences can expect a good old-fashioned story that’s both funny and deeply disquieting. Melbourne audiences may be familiar with RealTV’s Helicopter, produced by Melbourne Theatre Company in 2012. Tall Man
is quite different in terms of character, style and the world of the play, but it will absolutely feature RealTV’s signature fusion of great direction, music and story.

Is this your first play at La Mama?

Yes, it is and I’m absolutely thrilled to be a part of the La Mama Autumn season. I’ve always wanted to present a work at La Mama and Tall Man seemed like the perfect work.

The first time I visited the theatre I was a university student. I can’t remember the name of the play I went to see, but I do remember the audience were invited to sit on chairs and place their heads through the stage. The action happened at eye level. I thought it was wild. There’s no debating, La Mama is one of the most important theatres in this country, there’s nowhere else like it. Viva La Mama!

What’s unique about RealTV’s work?

I think the most unique element of RealTV is our history. Leticia Caceres, Pete Goodwin (The Sweats) and I have been collaborating as an artistic team for 12 years.

As an independent team, it’s been challenging negotiating the slings and arrows of the industry, but we’re still here and I hope we still will be in another 12 years.

With this much history, we’ve developed a pretty sophisticated language and short-hand. In the rehearsal room Leticia and I make decisions quickly and we edit each other’s work quite brutally.

Sometimes that surprises new collaborators, however I think they all sense very early on the special synergy of RealTV and enjoy being part of that process.

What’s your next big project?

2013 is a really big development year for me. I’ve been working on a commission with Belvoir and I’m part of the Griffin Studio in Sydney. I’m also working on a feature film with mentor Sue Smith (Mabo, Brides of Christ) as part of a Kit Denton Disfellowship I received last year.

In my spare time I’ve been writing a companion piece to Tall Man. It’s the story of what happens to one of the characters who is mentioned in Tall Man but who never appears. Stay tuned!

[Tall Man is playing at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne, April 18–May 4. Email: for bookings.]

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